Buying my first car was always going to be a struggle between heart and head. The heart, of course, was saying “Go for the 10-year-old Alfa GT”. The head (and dad) was saying “Go for something new or near new and reliable”. Enter the Mitsubishi Lancer, a car that some might sarcastically argue is almost as old as my dad.
Now, you might be thinking why the Lancer? After all, there are plenty of other newer competitors around. Well, while far from perfect, as you are about to read, once you look beyond fancy electronics and the latest in engine and driving technology, there’s actually a lot to like about the Lancer as a first car.
Let’s start by talking money. When looking for my first car, I knew that I would be spending pretty much all of the money I had saved working ever since I was 14. Not only was there a limit on how much I would spend upfront, I also wouldn’t have a whole lot to spend in coming months if things went wrong. Hence the decision to go cheap and new rather than cheap and exotic.
At $22K, the Lancer came pretty much fully loaded, especially when compared with other competitors at its pricepoint at the time (most notably the 2015 Holden Cruze Equipe and Hyundai i30 Active). Of course, I should acknowledge that while the Lancer marches on seemingly forever, the offerings by those brands have moved on since then.
On the topic of costs, the Lancer has one of the best ownership costs in the market. Five-year warranty, five years' capped-price servicing and five years' roadside assist. Service intervals are 12-monthly (not six-monthly like Subaru’s Impreza at the time) and cost $260 each for the first five years. For a first-car buyer with a limited budget, long-term ownership costs are an extremely important factor.
Of course, there’s also the way the Lancer drives. Being the GSR, it has Mitsubishi’s 2.4-litre MIVEC engine, good for 124kW and 220Nm of torque. While it’s a relatively portly thing (for a small car) at 1400kg, its performance is above those at its pricepoint, and you certainly notice its extra 20kW advantage over the competition when overtaking while out on the open road.
Fuel economy is also pretty good for an old school, non-turbo engine. On a recent drive from Sydney to the Southern Highlands, I averaged 5.2L/100km. The CVT gearbox is also a pretty good thing. While I’m probably not the biggest fan of CVTs, the Lancer certainly makes a sound case. Around town it holds the revs, allowing for spritely acceleration, while sitting at 2000rpm at 100km/h on the freeway. Throw in the fact that this engine has been tried and tested for over a decade now, and the result is pretty much bulletproof reliability.
Handling is possibly a surprise. Sitting on 18-inch wheels, steering feel is pretty good, while perhaps being a tad heavy when manoeuvring in a car park. Overall, though, it’s pretty direct and perfectly acceptable for a car of this price. The suspension is quite supple and handles bumps and speed humps without the crashing and terseness of other cheap suspension set-ups found at this pricepoint. The car itself is quite nose heavy, so understeer at high speed is to be expected. Maybe something better than the standard Nexen tyres would be a better handling/ride trade-off.
As for the interior, I admit there is a fair bit of hard plastic, but it’s nicely textured, and all well screwed together with no rattles. The doors come cladded in leather and close with a very solid thunk reminiscent of my dad’s Audi. Happily, unlike the Audi there are no quality niggles like squeaks and rattles! The seats are comfortable and well contoured. Other touchpoints are also pleasing, such as the leather steering wheel and gearknob. One small but impressive feature, the beautiful aluminium paddle-shifters feel like they are out of a $100K BMW. They comfortably outdo the plastic ones on the back of the steering wheel on my dad’s Audi S3.
Annoying features? Well, there are definitely a few. Why on earth do carmakers only put auto up-down switches for the driver’s window? Is it really that expensive to fit them to all the doors? The fuel gauge also tends to have the accuracy of a North Korean missile once it falls below half a full tank, often indicating that you have far less fuel than you actually have.
Also, despite the presence of a touchscreen, there’s no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, although part of that can be blamed on this car being purchased back in 2015 and being designed a long time before that.
Overall? While I had my heart set on the Alfa, the reality is that dad was probably right (but don’t tell him!). The priorities for a first-car buyer are quite specific and budget sensitive. Put in context, the Lancer stacks up well against its rivals when viewed through the lenses of a first-car buyer. This goes a long way to explaining why there are so many of them in the Macquarie Uni carpark!
Three years from now (and who knows, hopefully working for CarAdvice…), would I buy the Lancer if looking for that sort of car again? Probably not. In fact, that’s probably when I’ll get that 10-year-old Alfa GT, or something obviously more exotic than the Lancer. But despite being conceived somewhere back towards the Middle Ages, the Lancer does more than enough things right to appeal to the first-car buyer.